Air Force discovers versatile mapping tool

Tech Success: IT solutions in action

Project: Mapping technology

Agency: Air Force

Partners: Autodesk Inc. and Oracle Corp.

Goal: Create a mapping application that can be used to view and analyze Air Force base data, such as geospatial information and building schematics.

Obstacles: Various kinds of data in multiple formats had to be integrated, kept current and made easily available for access via the Web by first responders in emergency situations.

Solution: The Base Visualization Tool, built on geospatial, schematic and database applications, lets users access and update data with a variety of tools.

Payoff: Non-engineers, like first responders, have fast access to important data they need about the base.

When a truck bomb tore through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, all types of emergency response personnel rushed to the scene.

Handling the medical and fire emergencies was difficult enough, but the blast caused unknown ? and unknowable ? engineering and structural weaknesses that threatened emergency workers.

During recovery efforts in the days after the explosion, officials used computer-aided design drawings of the structure to examine floor plans and identify important features, such as load-bearing walls. First responders also used the CAD drawings to plot the location of missing people, based on where survivors last saw them. Using building data, officials built a computer model of the explosion to help pinpoint the location of many of the victims.

In hindsight, first responders realized how valuable it would have been to have digital building data before the incident. Maps incorporating engineering schematics would have shown them where stairs and utility lines were in relation to survivors' location.

Recognizing the power of such an application, officials at Patrick Air Force base in Florida have worked with Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif., and Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., to build a system to meet a variety of operational needs, said Kirk Fisher, government account executive for Autodesk Government.

Building on Autodesk's MapGuide software, Patrick Air Force Base officials worked with Autodesk to create the Base Visualization Tool, which offers Web-based, basewide access to up-to-date geospatial data about assets and facilities. The application includes Autodesk's DWF Viewer, which lets users view and print 2D and 3D drawings, maps and models.

Data from the service's CAD and geographic information systems data and other sources, including aerial photography, floor plans, as-built drawings and real-property data, are integrated and stored in an Oracle database.

Autodesk helped the Air Force customize the application for specific operational needs, such as base security, Fisher said. The application helps the 45th Space Wing by providing "enhanced situational awareness around an incident, whether that incident be a fender bender, a bomb threat, a fire or some other security issue on its bases," he said.

First responders use the software to get greater awareness of tactical situations and to distribute that information basewide to those who need a visual image of what's happening on the ground.

An extension to the Oracle database, Oracle Spatial, lets base officials store, index and query map data.

"When you are dealing with a large base like this, you've got a lot of mapping data, but you also have a lot of engineering data and a lot of schematics data, which is generated by some of the Autodesk tools," said Xavier Lopez, Oracle's director of spatial technologies. "What you have [are] tens, if not hundreds, of layers of this map data that needs to be stored and maintained."

Together, the Oracle database and Oracle Spatial can help manage the data and make it readily available for use with Autodesk tools to quickly produce visualizations.

A key aspect of the application is its compliance with Air Force GeoBase Enterprise Architecture guidelines, which ensures that it provides an interoperable, standards-based solution that leverages mapping IT investments.

The database uses structured query language to access map data, which can be in various formats from different vendors or generated using other third-party tools.

If police, fire and emergency medical personnel are responding to a crisis, they have a different set of users who are not CAD analysts or engineers, Lopez said. These people are trying to grasp quickly the scope and extent of damage that has occurred, he said.

"Real-time access to the different infrastructure assets is very important for response in a crisis," Lopez said.

In the Patrick Air Force Base project, Autodesk features a front end to visualize where structures are and what changes have occurred to them over time, particularly in the devastating aftermath of a hurricane.

As the amount and types of environmental data increase, along with the ease of integrating often-proprietary formatted data, so is the number of sophisticated applications, such as the Base Visualization Tool. Organizations now are exploring how they can extend the data's usefulness.

The market is moving toward consolidating spatial data into a common repository and using standard access methods to get it, Lopez said.

"We see location mapping becoming mainstream," he said, "so our goal is to enable the whole IT landscape for this mapping, viewing and map analysis."

If you have an innovative solution that you installed in a government agency, contact staff writer Doug Beizer at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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